Rotating Sutra Cabinets

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Oct 9, 2017.)

The framework of a sutra cabinet (with the shelves removed)
at Longxing Temple in Zhengding, Hebei Province.

Previously, I have described the use of prayer wheels in Tibetan-style temples. These large drums, which may be located along a corridor, or at the side of a building, have a prayer written on them. Om Mani Padme Hum--"Hail the Jewel in the Lotus!" The belief is that every time a person turns one of these drums--whether laboriously, or with a fast spin--he gains the merit of having said that mantra (a set of supposedly powerful words) one time.

In addition to these large drums, you may also see a person walking around a pagoda or other building--with his or her right shoulder toward it--while holding something that looks like a children's toy, a sort of disc on a stick, with a bead whirling around it on a string as the person spins it vigorously. Serious devotees may also chant the prayer quietly as they walk and spin. These small devices, too, are called "prayer wheels" in English.

But there is another, grander, practice with a similar mechanism and intention.

In some temples, sutra cabinets are mounted in such a way that they can rotate. That is, a "circle" of shelves, perhaps eight-sided, is set on a central pillar. Devotees may then enter the hall and walk around the cabinet holding a handle that causes it to turn slowly. I have seen these on Mount Wutai; in Beijing; and at Longxing Temple in Zhengding, outside of Shijiazhuang. (I also actually turned one in a popular Japanese temple).

The idea is that for each full turning, you gain as much merit as if you had chanted all the sutras in the cabinet. Quite a feat!

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